Tord Gustavsen approaches the piano as if each key is delicate, easily breakable, easily upset. In concert with his trio at Merkin Hall Thursday night, he contorted into a variety of uncomfortable-looking positions, all in the service of approaching the keys with the featheriest, most tender and caressing of touches. As Gustavsen well knows, if you approach a fine piano (like the beautiful Steinway concert grand he was playing) as if it is an infinitely delicate instrument, it will reward you by sounding like one. Throughout the performance, he produced a living, breathing tone, meltingly soft but vibrant with intensity.
The CD that the trio was promoting, "The Ground," has met with overwhelming success in their native Norway, even reaching the No. 1 spot on the pop charts -- a fact that says more about Norway than it does about the trio's music. But it helps that Gustavsen writes simple, unabashedly melodic compositions and plays them without a hint of the thornily intellectual chromatic language that scares so many people away from modern jazz. His tunes incorporate hints of tango, bossa nova and other hotel-lobby jazz stylings, and there's a kind of muted hokiness to the whole atmosphere. The music would be somewhat distasteful if the trio didn't play it with such exceptional delicacy and concentration, turning what could be easy listening into something mesmerizing and even profound.
Gustavsen is a supremely economical improviser, with a tendency to insistently repeat single notes, muezzin style, with a kind of incantatory intensity. It's thrilling to hear him perform, but although his concentration never seems to let up, the atmosphere of the music is so consistent in tone, so hushed and so understated, that both live and on CD the cumulative effect can be somewhat stultifying. In this concert, Gustavsen would occasionally try to push the trio into more overtly passionate territory, but was foiled by drummer Jarle Vespestad and bassist Harald Johnsen, unwilling to stray from their comfort zone. The odd result was that the most dynamic moments in the concert came when Gustavsen was playing solo. Still, "The Ground" is the best jazz record I've heard so far this year, and well worth purchasing. It's available for download on iTunes here. The trio is currently on a short U.S. tour, and the dates can be found here.